Racism Awareness Prompted by Personal Testimony

Miles Powell

Miles Powell is an economics major from Philadelphia, PA.  Last year, he tutored middle school students at the Ada Jenkins Center and became involved with the Davidson Investment and Financial Association. This summer, Miles is in New York City interning at Pzena Investment Management. Miles’ passions include camping, traveling, finance, politics, and writing. Written shortly after Ta Nehisi Coates’ Davidson visit, this essay is his final paper for Dr. Van Hillard’s course, “The Public Intellectual Writer.”

It has been one-hundred fifty years since the Thirteenth Amendment abolished American slavery, sixty-one years since Brown v. Board of education banned Jim Crow laws, and thirty-four years since Michael Donald’s brutal murder by a Klansman and a seventeen-year-old became the last officially-recorded lynching in the United States.[1] It’s a new century, a new millenium, and yet race and its father, racism, remain woven into every star and stripe of the American tapestry. Racism’s effects remain visceral, but are also far less explicitly stated than previously, making ignorant underestimation and even utter denial of modern racism more common. Sure, water fountains and Montgomery buses are no longer segregated. Civil rights workers arrested on speeding charges are no longer released by the police to the Ku Klux Klan under cover of darkness. Small Arkansas high schools no longer require the National Guard to shield black students from damage to their Black bodies. But racism is not preserved in spoken memories of past brutalities, nor is it sustained in the creaking spines or yellowed pages of history textbooks: its preservation and propagation is found in ubiquitous modern American inequities.

Consider that, years after housing discrimination supposedly ceased, a 2012 executive summary by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development clearly states that blacks are consistently told about or shown significantly fewer housing units than otherwise-identical white applicants (HUD). Consider too that the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded from a sweeping and expansive study that applicants with stereotypically-black names need to submit fifty percent more resumes than their “white-name” counterparts to get a single callback, and that a “white name yields as many more callbacks as an additional eight years of experience” (Francis). These numbers, though shocking, are merely statistics, and typically represent symptoms, rather than causes, of modern racism. And while such figures clearly establish the existence and extent of modern socioeconomic inequalities, they don’t address the individual human costs of racism, the cumulative effects of experiencing daily microtransgressions, the psychological toll of needing to be “twice as good” (Coates 91). Statistics are informative but impersonal, detached from the urgency of the cause. For this reason, the “personal testimony” authorial style used by public intellectual writers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates is an especially galvanizing remedy to bridge the gap between readers’ brains and reader’s hearts, consciences, and humanity.

Ta-Nahesi Coates has, since publishing The Atlantic cover articles “Fear of a Black President” and especially “The Case for Reparations,” experienced a meteoric rise to prominence as both an innovative journalist and a leading societal critic. Although articles like “The Case for Reparations” evince Coates’ ability to dance between facts and figures in compelling performances of rhetoric, he chooses to substantiate the majority of his works’ theses using anecdotal evidence, a strategy which Coates evidently finds more compelling. It is this masterful ability to assert personal, but abstract-map1-225x300 Racism Awareness Prompted by Personal Testimonybroadly representative, truths which has thrust Letter to My Son into the spotlight, where it has garnered seemingly-unceasing praise including the 2015 National Book Award. Despite the overwhelmingly-positive response to Coates’ most recent book, however, its prominence has caught the attention of critics such as Commentary’s Kyle Smith. Smith sharply argues in “The Hard Untruths of Ta-Nehisi Coates” that Letter to My Son and its author are embittering, racist, hyperbolic, irrational, illogical, and irresponsible. His polemic scrutinizes the substantial personal testimony comprising the work. Smith’s criticisms, though numerous, are consistently invalid and poorly-reasoned. By dissecting Smith’s flawed logic, then supporting Coates’ affinity for testimonial support with both textual and external evidence, this essay argues for the efficacy of the personal testimony approach to race commentary through a two-step process of fallacy deconstruction and truth substantiation.

“The Hard Untruths of Ta-Nehisi Coates” unfurls with hate. Beginning with an inflammatory hypothetical, Smith prompts readers to consider the reaction to, and repercussions for, a white man with a “deep-seated dislike for black people” who trains his son to participate in the same tradition (20). He would, surely, be subjected to contempt, ostracization, and unemployment, as happened to white National Review contributor John Derbyshire following publication of his “The Talk: Nonblack Version.” Smith wonders why Coates “has been crowned America’s leading civic thinker” given his generalizations about whites, as if occurrences of black-white racism somehow lessen the cruel severity of systemic white-black racism (30). According to Smith, this double standard equates to glaring reverse racism. He believes Coates’ constructive generalizations to be malignant racism, blooming unchecked in broad daylight. The problem with Smith’s analysis is that he assumes away the very variables against which Coates fights: white-black racism, inequality favoring whites, violent history itself. Ceteris paribus simply doesn’t apply given the aforementioned three manifestations of unidirectional social division; all other things are not equal. Unlike Coates, who speaks from a systemically-disadvantaged position, Smith experiences advantageous racism—white privilege. Smith’s hypothetical therefore fails the symmetry test upon which it balances. Lingering racial hatred, as seen in Derbyshire’s directive to “avoid concentrations of blacks,” justifies the generalizations inherent in Coates’ testimony by reinforcing the American racial boundaries against which Coates fights (Derbyshire).

Coates’ personal testimony is the selective summation of experiences germane to his battle. Given the ubiquity of socioeconomic inequity in Coates’ youth, from his arrival in poverty-stricken West Baltimore to the fatal shooting of his innocent Howard University friend Prince Jones, inclusion of such generalizations in a personal reflection is hardly surprising. Moreover, because issues discussed in Letter to My Son are problems spawned and sustained by generalized groupthink, the only possible solutions directly confront the inclusion (and necessary exclusion) racism entails. White privilege and black subjugation are not exceptions to the norm; their dovetailing constitutes America’s default setting. Were Coates to address “those blacks affected by racism” or “those whites who are racist,” he would be crippling his own analysis because the concepts of racism and racial privilege are rooted in segmenting and separating entire denominations through arbitrary ancestral categorization.

Coates consequently assumes the role of outspoken Black body, educating readers on the catalytic events facilitating current racial momentum. He begins with the plunder enabling White America’s progress, noting that as late as 1863, Federal government by the People, for the People, condoned the institutionalized dehumanization of blacks (recall Dred Scott, who was told by the Supreme Court in 1857 that he could not sue for his freedom because his blackness barred him from personhood). The implicit reality was government by whites, for whites, resting on the economic pillar of black enslavement- “the greatest material interest of the world” (Coates 89). Given the American tradition to “destroy the black body,” Smith’s comparison of Coates and Derbyshire is offensive and ill-conceived, surviving no critical scrutiny (Coates 89). Derbyshire is unapologetically racist, continuing America’s legacy of subjugating blacks. By contrast, Coates confronts this legacy through anecdotal evidence exposing truths more comfortably left unspoken. He renders history itself unsettlingly-visceral through personal testimony by conjuring personal experiences navigating Black America during his formative years.

Coates’ personal testimony is the selective summation of experiences germane to his battle. Given the ubiquity of socioeconomic inequity in Coates’ youth, from his arrival in poverty-stricken West Baltimore to the fatal shooting of his innocent Howard University friend Prince Jones, inclusion of such generalizations in a personal reflection is hardly surprising.

Smith’s attempt to intelligently criticize Coates’ writing rapidly devolves into heavy reliance on ad hominem attacks. Ironically, Coates’ blunt ethos is the foundation upon which his personal testimony is erected into a coherent, freestanding, call-to-arms. Evidently, his detractors struggle to find legitimate rhetorical shortcomings, and instead turn toward red herrings and cheap attacks on Coates which are consistently incorrect, irrelevant, or both. For example, Smith accuses Coates of “simply assuming America is as poisoned by race obsessions as he is” (21). If anything, Coates premises his writing on the opposite assumption; America is poisoned by a lack of discussion and questioning of race and racism. Beyond that, it is logically incoherent for Smith to, in the same paragraph, say that Coates assumes those people constituting America are obsessed with race, and that only his “straw man” would “claim the racism problem is over in America” (21). If Coates does, as the latter quote implies, believe racism-denialists thrive in the modern American climate, then how could he also believe that America is “poisoned” by an obsession with race? More transparently, Smith twists Coates’ “I spoke…” into the mockery “screaming his lungs out,” accusing Coates of exaggeration while doing the same (22). Smith then further personalizes his criticism, irrelevantly griping that Coates rarely mentions “the position he has occupied” when referencing his own life as a famous author (21). Although Coates has enjoyed job stability, wealth, and near-deification by a dedicated fanbase, drawing attention to such bonafide personal details about his life serves no rhetorical purpose beyond distraction. Coates is well within his rights in selective incorporation of anecdotal details. Treating Coates’ success as undermining evidence against the socioeconomic constraints of racism against which he struggles constitutes entrapment by the fallacy of composition; what is true for one is not necessarily true for all. This is the same flawed logic used to warp Barack Obama’s Presidency into “proof” that modernization has resulted in erasure of black boundaries imposed by a white supremacist national heritage.

Smith is especially vitriolic in condemning Coates’ fatherhood, questioning his parenting motives and aspirations for his teen son, Samori. Smith attacks Coates’ comparison between Samori and Trayvon Martin, implicitly revealing himself a biased Zimmerman-sympathizer while simultaneously decrying existence of Coates’ clear bias for the opposite. The fact is, Smith takes Coates’ “there is no difference between [Samori] and Trayvon Martin” too literally– by virtue of human individuality, each boy is inherently distinct– and misses the broader point (Smith 21). In a society categorizing and subjugating people through stereotyping, Samori and Trayvon are indistinguishable: teen, male, black. Smith even exaggerates Coates’ and Samori’s mourning for Michael Brown’s death to Coates tethering “a haunted, angry” anchor behind his son’s “every movement,” as if passionate responses to relevant news equates to disadvantageous brainwashing (21). In doing so, Smith robs the young man of his agency and blames Coates for opinions held by his teenage son, ignoring Coates’ explicit statement: “I have raised [Samori] to respect every human being as singular” (Coates 90). Smith writes that Coates is a poor father, and implies that this “fact” prevents Coates from writing well to his son. Coates’ parenting prowess is irrelevant, though. While speaking at Davidson College, Coates explained his primary motivation for writing “to” Samori was to channel his mercurial passion into a consistent, steady, focused medium, not to literally write to Samori. His personal testimony format allows relatable injections of humanity into his annihilation of a dehumanizing social ailment, providing ample emotional appeals to rouse readers’ consciences and catalyze their participation in a narrative distinct from their own. A paternalistic approach further bolters automatic acceptance of Coates as a racial authority figure.

Coates’ prose is disheartening. But it has to be. Coates is making a legacy of American slavery dating back to 1619 comprehensible by attesting to his experience suffering its modern repercussions.

Addressing youth invokes the beauty of childhood innocence and the injustice of unequal opportunity. This enhances both its rhetorical appeal and Coates’ personal testimony methodology because representative anecdotes of his youth, and his son’s, arouse sharp resentment of American racism. Childhood functions for Coates as an experimental microcosm in which ceteris paribus analysis can apply- born as blank film in expansive “galaxies” dimmed by racism, children often develop in the likeness of their environments, thereby manifesting results of tradition while unknowingly participating in its perpetuation (85). Coates’ fatherly attempt to testify before readers as if his they were his own children therefore functions as a sort of vital intervention to break the cyclical chain. He is not unkind to “children,” because he unearths the legislative paper trail which guided society to its current status. However, Smith is far less charitable in his criticism of Coates’ tone.

Smith labels Coates’s authorial voice contemptuous and bitter, delusional and dramatic, hypersensitive and hypocritical. It is, supposedly, wrong for Coates to express dissatisfaction with legislative black subjugation because the federal government has funded the War on Poverty with more money than the entire 2014 United States GDP. Is Coates really nursing a grudge, considering that the fifty-year War on Poverty not only failed to reduce poverty rates, but spent twenty-two trillion dollars doing so? And how can Smith so coarsely regard an economically-motivated program as an effective designation of racial reparations without ignorantly implying that blackness and poverty are mutually-reinforcing? Smith’s accusation that Coates’ tone toes the delusional is even more fallacious; Smith tries to topple assertions of police profiling in the murder of Prince Jones by mocking Coates’ supposed-scapegoating of the “white racist superstructure” in a “black country run by black politicians.” Simply wrong, this childish rhetorical strategy is factually incorrect. Blacks comprise thirteen percent of the American population, and possess only eight percent of Congressional seats (“USA QuickFacts”, “Most Diverse Congress”). Still worse, Smith attempts to convince readers that Coates’ abhorrence of racism seeks to establish white American culpability for black crime.

To do so, Smith misinterprets a Letter to My Son quote, redefining Coates’ prose with apologist rhetoric. Using a form of straw man argumentation, Smith tries to invalidate Coates’ entire ambitions by striking down a contrived causal link between racism and black innocence, claiming “by such logic, no black person can ever be held responsible for his acts”(22). Coates is hardly abstract-map1-225x300 Racism Awareness Prompted by Personal Testimonynegating black criminal accountability by providing historical context for socioeconomic impetuses conducive to gang formation. Coates merely illustrates realities germane to his adolescence and, presumably, that of innumerable others subdued by the same legacy, in an effort to engender perspectival broadening. Understanding context and condoning crime are not synonymous, as Smith would have readers believe. And yet, despite such obvious analytic incoherence, Smith believes himself to be triumphing over injurious doctrine by clumsily dissecting Coates’ “disheartening” prose.

Coates’ prose is disheartening. But it has to be. Coates is making a legacy of American slavery dating back to 1619 comprehensible by attesting to his experience suffering its modern repercussions. His ideology is not one of hate; it is one of blunt, compelling reality urgently told on behalf of the millions who can relate. Representative anecdotal evidence suffices because, although Coates is an individual, the racism he battles is hardwired by American tradition and programmed by collective ignorance. Its burdens fall squarely on black shoulders; its profits compound in white real estate, wage discrepancies, and cyclical education attainments, regardless of whether whites consciously or unknowingly assume this position. By crippling Coates’ personal testimony on the grounds that it is parochial, merely Coates’ perspective, detractors like Smith inadvertently cast racism as a problem perpetuated by or affecting solely individuals. Such logic is inherently dangerous because it is, by definition, invalid; black racism and white privilege extend to everyone categorized by America’s historical racial dichotomy. To deny this is disable future egalitarian efforts by declaring reparations complete after removing only the bloodiest branches of this metastasizing American



[1] Sincere thanks to Professor Van Hillard, classmate Laura Dunnagan, and editor Romare Marshall for providing helpful criticism regarding structural clarity and thesis refinement.



Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “Letter to My Son.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 4 July 2015. Web. 23 Nov. 2015.

Derbyshire, John. “The Talk: Nonblack Version.” Taki’s Magazine. Taki’s Magazine, 12 Apr. 2012. Web. 23 Nov. 2015.

Francis, David. “Employers’ Replies to Racial Names.” NBER. The National Bureau of Economic Research. Web. 23 Nov. 2015.

HUD. “Housing Discrimination Against Racial and Ethnic Minorities 2012.” U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 1 June 2013. Web. 23 Nov. 2015.

“Most Diverse Congress Sworn In.” DiversityInc. DiversityInc, 14 Jan. 2013. Web. 23 Nov. 2015.

Smith, Kyle. “The Hard Untruths of Ta-Nehisi Coates.” Commentary Magazine. 15 Oct. 2015. Web. 23 Nov. 2015.

“USA QuickFacts from the US Census Bureau.” USA QuickFacts from the US Census Bureau. U.S. Census, 30 Sept. 2015. Web. 23 Nov. 2015.